The half-length portrait of Katharina Merian, attributed to the German artist Hans Brosamer, is an exemplary painting of German women’s fashion of the early 16th century.
About the Portrait
ans Brosamer, a German painter, engraver and woodcut designer, was born in Fulda, in the dukedom of Hesse, at the beginning of the 1500s and died in Erfurt in Thuringen sometime after 1554. This biographical data can only be inferred from his dated woodcuts, paintings and engravings signed with his initials (Glowa 895-896). As curator Joshua Waterman notes, the painting has been attributed to Hans Brosamer mainly because of the monogram ‘HB’ on the back of the panel, which also appears in other similar portraits of the time. Although no corresponding male portrait is known, it was probably accompanied by a pendant depicting the sitters’ husband (Waterman 34-36).
The Met informs us that sometime before 1871, the background was entirely reworked. An inscription with the name and the age of the sitter, the monogram of the artist and the date was added on the back of the painting, probably because it was lost during the reworking of the background. Even though the attribution had met unanimous approval, other artists, such as Hans Baldung Grien, used ‘HB’ as their signature, making assessment of Brosamer’s work problematic (Glowa 895-896).
Attributed to Hans Brosamer (German, active by 1536, probably died 1552). Katharina Merian. Oil, gold, and white metal on linden; 46.4 x 33.3 cm (18 1/4 x 13 1/8 in). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982.60.38. The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
About the Fashion
he painting is a half-bust portrait of Katharina Merian standing before a green background. She turns her head and rests her hands at the waist. She is wearing a black dress with long close-fitting sleeves and a golden decorated belt at the waistline. The wide squared neckline is attached to a white high collar chemise or filled with a partlet. It is difficult to identify whether it is a chemise or a cut to shape cloth as both were frequently used in the period to cover the exposed décolletage by women who preferred to demonstrate modesty. The different tones of black on the bodice and on the cuffs suggest that the dress was formed of different fabrics laced together. Typical materials of the 16th century were silk, velvet, satin or wool (Bradley 168). Her hair plaited at the back is covered by a broad oval black headdress which the Met describes as a “tellerbarett” (platter hat), decorated with a gray ribbon along the edge of the brim and what looks like pairs of gold aiglets (Waterman 36). She wears several golden rings, a golden chain collar necklace and a gold brooch with three pearl pendants pinned to the yoke of the bodice. Therefore, it is evident that the woman depicted by Brosamer was a wealthy member of the civic elite.
A very similar costume is documented in other Nuremberg portraits of the time, such as the female likeness in the 1525 portrait diptych of Hans and Barbara Straub by Hans Plattner (Fig. 1). In addition, both figures are depicted in almost exactly the same position.
In Germany, the influences of the fashion of Italian High Renaissance were slowly spreading, but in the first decades of the 16th century many women of the north continued wearing some form of late Gothic designs mixed with new Italian details. Upperclass women would wear fitted bodices that outlined their natural feminine form to which full gathered skirts were often sewn together and belts, if worn, were exclusively for decorative purpose (Hill 378, 379).
A lavish use of jewels and jewelry was embraced in the sixteenth century, where several gold chains and jeweled encrusted necklaces, sometimes of different lengths, were worn by women (and men) as seen in the paintings of Lucas Cranach the Younger and Hans Holbein (Figs. 2, 4). According to fashion historian Daniel Hill, the wide and open neckline provided a natural foil for displaying finely made necklaces, chokers and pendants (378). Sizable gold brooches with multiple pearl pendants were pinned to the flat-fronted bodice or headdress; a similar example of a mid-century pendant possibly made in England survives (Fig. 3). Jeweled belts were common as well, while bracelets and earrings were not. In the 1520s and 1530s, sets of five rings were worn of various fingers, like those on Katharina Merian’s right hand and on both the women in figures 2-4 (Hill 381). This substantial use of decorative accessories is what sets the course for the excess of what comes in the second half of the century.
Hair showed very little since a main feature of women of the early 1500s was the headdress. In fact women wore a great variety of head-coverings, from simple to elaborate. The gabled hood, for instance, was a variation of Gothic headdresses, that was popular among English and French aristocratic women (Fig. 4). In Germany women adopted flat hats, known as baretts, also worn by men; these were worn over cauls or hairnet of gold thread (Margot 164). Jutta Zander-Seidel, the Head of the textiles and jewelry collection of the German National Museum, pointed out that the hats in Katharina Merian and Barbara Straub (Fig. 1) exemplify the type of headdress that in the 1520s replaced the bonnet among patrician women in Nuremberg (Waterman 36). A similar hat decoration with gold aiglets can be seen in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man from the 1530s (Fig. 5).
Another factor that needs to be considered is the new symbolism that the color black had acquired in the 16th century, which Michel Pastoureau explains in his book Noir, histoire d’une couleur. The confederation of German states bound together as the Holy Roman Empire was living a religious, political, and cultural upheaval against the Catholic doctrine. Reformers like Martin Luther (Fig. 6) challenged papal authority, questioned the Catholic Church and objected to its abuse. With the new advances in printing technology they were able to easily disseminate Protestant pamphlets, spreading their ideas of salvation quickly and appealing to the masses.
Until the 15th century black garments were usually worn only by European aristocrats as a way to dress luxuriously. With the influence of the Spanish style, where black was emblematic of the Habsburg rulers (Charles V and Philip II), the color became widespread and gained acceptance even in reformed Protestant countries. During the Protestant Reformation black became representative of the sober color of choice against the lavish splendors of Catholicism (Pastoureau 121-125).
- Bradley, Carolyn Gertrude. Western World Costume: An Outline History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 2001. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/46777487.
- Glowa, Josef K. The Sixteenth Century Journal 35, no. 3 (2004): 895-96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20477092.
- Hill, Daniel Delis. History of World Costume and Fashion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/768100950.
- Lister, Margot. Costume: An Illustrated Survey from Ancient Times to the Twentieth Century. 1st American ed. Boston: Plays, inc, 1968. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1001875368.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Katharina Merian Attributed to Hans Brosamer.” Accessed December 1, 2016. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435804
- Pastoureau, Michel. Noir, histoire d’une couleur. Paris: Seuil, 2014. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/881843143.
- Waterman, Joshua P. “Katharina Merian.” In German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350-1600, edited by Maryan Wynn Ainsworth, 34–36. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/German_Paintings_in_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art_1350_1600.